Art of preservation: Group learns restoration tips for historic cemetery

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Jonathan Appell of Hartford, Conn., conducts a hands-on workshop on gravestone preservation the Demersville Cemetery on Tuesday, September 16, in Kalispell. The workshop was sponsored by the Montana Historical Society and the Museums Association of Montana. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Not all historic gravestones are made of stone.

Sometimes they’re made of “white bronze,” a metal that’s actually zinc carbonate.

That was one of many interesting facts doled out Tuesday at Demersville Cemetery by nationally known gravestone conservator Jonathan Appell. 

He conducted an all-day workshop to teach people how to reset and conserve monuments.

Many were surprised to learn about the metal gravestones, which look deceivingly like stone.

“These are almost pure zinc,” Appell said, explaining that the metal gravestones were less expensive in their day and are hollow. “There are legends of booze being stored inside these during Prohibition.”

To illustrate, Appell tipped an unattached zinc grave marker dated 1902 on its side to reveal the hollow interior.

When zinc gravestones began to grow in popularity, the marble and granite industries — typically archrivals — teamed up against the metal industry and put out the word that zinc gravestones wouldn’t last.

Although Demersville Cemetery has been neglected through the years, and some gravestones are hidden inside lilac bushes that have grown over graves, Appell said the historic graveyard is fairly well-preserved, largely because of the area’s climate.

“The stones are in amazingly good condition,” he said.

Appell has done work in old cemeteries across the country, and in places with much wetter weather, there’s more biological damage to grave markers. Many Demersville headstones are covered with orange lichen, but it’s not harmful to the stone, he said.

What can be more damaging to a headstone is the geology of the stone that causes it to crack over time. Appell advised repairing those markers with a soft mortar, not epoxy.

Preservation efforts should strive to keep a cemetery’s original condition intact, he said. When asked whether creating a water source at Demersville Cemetery, located on Cemetery Road south of Kalispell, would be advisable, Appell said irrigation “would cost a fortune,” and would increase the rate of deterioration.

“Sometimes in newer sections [of cemeteries] there are expectations,” he said. “They want a golf-course look. But water shouldn’t be dumped into areas that don’t need it. It will give a cemetery more historical integrity.”

A group of about 20 people organized in January to begin focusing on maintenance and record-keeping needs and charting a course for ongoing maintenance at Demersville. The goal is to have a hands-on group that could seek grants, define bylaws and formulate a plan for maintaining Demersville Cemetery.

Diana Carson, a deputy clerk in the Flathead County Clerk and Recorder Office, has been an active volunteer with the work group. She has been researching and compiling grave records at Demersville for the past four years.

“It’s been a passion,” she said. “I like doing genealogy. You can imagine families’ stories.”

Demersville is the earliest established formal cemetery in Flathead County and provides a free history lesson of the valley. It was started on land donated in 1890 by four families of the long-since-vanished riverboat town of Demersville, and sits about 2 miles from the original townsite.

The gravestones are a who’s who of Flathead pioneers, with names such as Foy, Terriault and Coram carved in stone.

Many railroad workers killed during the construction of the railroad are buried there, including Japanese workers whose tombstones — in a far corner of the cemetery — have Japanese writing on them. A number of Kalispell’s early-day Chinese residents also are buried there.

Dodie Sekora, a former Flathead County Parks and Recreation employee who now lives in Choteau, also spent years poring over gravesites and compiling records. When she worked for the parks department in the 1990s, it was located next to Demersville Cemetery.

“I used to spend my lunch hours up here, learning the history of the Flathead,” Sekora said during a break at Tuesday’s workshop. “I still go through old cemeteries.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

 

Jonathan Appell of Hartford, Conn., explains the repairs needed for a mortise and tenon gravestone in the Demersville Cemetery on Tuesday, September 16, in Kalispell. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

 

Jonathan Appell of Hartford, Conn., talks about cleaning a gravestone in the Demersville Cemetery on Tuesday, September 16, in Kalispell. In the background is County Commissioner Cal Scott. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

 

Jonathan Appell of Hartford, Conn., explains options for restoring and repairing a gravestone the Demersville Cemetery on Tuesday, September 16, in Kalispell. This gravestone originally had a fixture at the top of the piece which has been lost over time. Since the goal of restoration is to remain as true to the original as possible Appell does not recommend adding a topper. The best options, said Appell is to remove the metal, which can act as a cracking agent, and seal the stone. This would be a preventative measure as well as preservation. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

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